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Review of recent religion-and-science articles in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion

JAAR CoverIt seems that conversations about religion and cognitive science are heating up in the American Academy of Religion (AAR), the nation’s largest organization of religion scholars. At least that is what I have surmised from the most recent issue of the AAR’s Journal (June 2008), which devoted a substantial section (about 80 pages) to discussions of the import of the natural sciences for the study of religion. Two articles presented contrasting views of this import, and the authors of each article were given additional space to respond to one another.

For those hoping for increased receptivity to interdisciplinary studies of religion, the exchange is encouraging, for the most part. Enthusiasm for scientific approaches to religion is building, as evidenced by Edward Slingerland’s article, “Who’s Afraid of Reductionism?” Unfortunately, in Slingerland’s case this enthusiasm for science is not tempered by a wide perspective of the many philosophical and scientific options that are available for undertaking an integrative approach to religion. In contrast, Francisco Cho and Richard Squier’s article, “He Blinded Me With Science,” displays an admirably sophisticated understanding of the subtleties of scientific methodology, but rather than employing this understanding to promote sophisticated integrations of scientific research with religious studies, the authors are skeptical, even wary, of such projects. And understandably so: if Slingerland’s narrow view of “vertical integration” is any indication of the form such projects will take, Cho and Squier have good reason to be skeptical. Accordingly, I will focus on Slingerland’s position here.

Edward Slingerland’s specialty is ancient Chinese thought. His first book, Effortless Action (2003), utilized a method of metaphorical analysis developed by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in their Philosophy in the Flesh (1999) to investigate the spiritual ideal of spontaneous and effortless skill (wu-wei) in ancient Daoist and Confucian texts. That project initiated Slingerland into the “embodied” approach to human thought and behavior and seems to have convinced him that human thought is governed by fundamental, innate ideas – a set of basic body-based imagery out of which all complex ideas are constructed – and that knowledge of these fundamental ideas is a powerful, universally applicable tool for the interpretation of religious and philosophical thought. It is worth noting, however, that reviewers have found fault with the results of Slingerland’s analysis (see Ivanhoe, 2007; Fraser, 2007). Nevertheless, in his latest book, What Science Offers the Humanities (2008b), Slingerland advances an argument for a large-scale, science-based, reductive approach to human thought and behavior. Presumably his article for JAAR presents a condensed version of that argument.

I will not quibble here with Slingerland’s contention that social constructivism (the view that human nature is a social construct) dominates the humanities, though his target sounds suspiciously like an outdated straw man. My main criticism of Slingerland’s argument is that he reduces the issue of “science and the humanities” to a simplistic dichotomy between two extreme positions: 1) physicalist, mechanistic, reductionism or, as he puts it, “robots all the way down” (Singerland, 2008a, pp. 383-4, 392) and 2) Cartesian dualism or, again, as he puts it, “magic” (pp. 383-4). There may be a rhetorical motive behind this exaggerated stance – e.g. perhaps Slingerland wants to shame his opponents by mocking their views as superstitions – but several key details suggest that his polemical stance stems from an uncritical acceptance of the arguments made by the strong “cognitivist” wing of the cognitive and neural sciences.

“Cognitivism” refers to the family of cognitive science research programs that model human thought closely on the information processing systems of computers. Accordingly, cognitivist theories tend to treat the human mind as a collection of domain-specific “mechanisms,” so that human intelligence is largely explained as innate knowledge, embodied by algorithmic processes, which are triggered by pre-specified kinds of information. For example, human linguistic ability is explained by a “language acquisition device” that embodies innate grammatical knowledge and is triggered by the speech of caregivers during infancy (see Pinker, 1994). Cognitivism has a very prominent public profile, as some of the most widely read cognitive theorists are proponents of some variety of this approach (e.g. Steven Pinker, 1997; Daniel Dennett, 1991). Moreover, the subfield of behavioral science known as “evolutionary psychology” is based on cognitivist principles, and in recent years the most prominent attempts to explain religious belief and behavior have been made by proponents of this subfield (see Boyer, 2001; Atran, 2002; Barrett, 2004).  

Regardless of its recent dominance in the scientific study of religion, no one should conflate the cognitivist approach with the whole of cognitive and neural science, but this seems to be what Slingerland has done. There is no mention in his article of the diversity of competing hypotheses concerning the biological basis of human behavior. Instead, Slingerland gives the impression that cognitive science (perhaps even “science” as a whole) is a united front, advancing inexorably on the territory of the humanities. In this respect, Singlerland closely resembles the stance of Stephen Pinker, whose best-selling defenses of cognitivist theory take aim at social constructivism in the social sciences and humanities rather than competing hypotheses at the same level of inquiry (see esp. Pinker, 2002).

Taking note of the diversity of theoretical possibilities is crucial for any interdisciplinary endeavor, but especially for those that wish to explain high-level cognition (e.g. human language and thought) by recourse to theories from the natural sciences. One should also take account of the many ways that one can understand “reduction,” something that Slingerland fails to do in his article. But even if we accept Slingerland’s unguarded statements about theoretical reduction (2008a, p. 384) and emergence (p. 378), the project of “vertical integration” is made considerably more complicated by the diversity of theories available at any given level of inquiry. In light of this diversity, Slingerland’s picture of the “levels of explanation” (pp. 387-392) is disclosed as one possible hypothesis about the biological basis of human nature. As such it is worthy of consideration, but it is not an inclusive, methodological plan for the scientific study of human nature.

Once the scientific monopoly of cognitivism is broken, the field of integrative interdisciplinary inquiry is opened up to a vast array of possibilities. Even basic assumptions such as “physicalism,” which Slingerland assumes is the only available option for naturalists (see pp. 392-393), are open to dispute. I will not go into the many important philosophical angles that are missed in Slingerland’s article here. Let it suffice to say that the rationalization of any integrative approach, at least at this stage, must make use of both philosophical and scientific arguments. As long as there is no single scientific approach to human nature, a rationally considered choice of what approach to take cannot rest solely on scientific grounds.

On the subject of philosophy, I would like to point out a curious irony in Slingerland’s use of Kant and Nietzsche to illustrate the contrast between his position and that of his enemy, the social constructivists. Slingerland argues that the stock social constructivist account of human nature – “learning,” plain and simple – is a vague “place-holder” that does no actual explanatory work. In this respect, it is akin to Kant’s account of synthetic a priori judgments, and Slingerland approvingly quotes Nietzsche’s mockery of Kant’s account:


‘How are synthetic judgments a priori possible?’ Kant asked himself—and what really is his answer? ‘By virtue of a faculty’…—but unfortunately not in five words, but so circumstantially, venerably, and with such a display of German profundity and curlicues that people simply failed to note the comical niaiserie allemenade [a nonsensical dance, or slight of hand] involved in such an answer” (p. 385).


In short, Nietzsche’s point is that a special “faculty” is an inadequate explanation for a mental function – in fact it is no explanation at all! The irony that I see here is that the “mechanisms” of the cognitivist theory that Slingerland espouses are no better than “faculties” in this regard. In my reading of “evolutionary psychology” literature, I have never found a detailed proposal of how, in fact, any such cognitive mechanism is actually embodied by the neural architecture of the brain. Instead, the data of evolutionary psychology, at this point, is largely behavioral, and is not, to my knowledge, integrated with neuroscience. Perhaps one reason for this lack of integration is that more than fifteen years ago the founders of evolutionary psychology as a distinct research program explicitly rejected the immediate relevance of neuroscience for cognitive science: they adopted the “black box” approach to human behavior (Barkow, Cosmides, and Tooby, 1992). And yet it is clear that current advocates of evolutionary psychology believe that they are making claims about the brain. Until these claims are linked with neuroscientific theories, however, these claims are nothing more than vague place-holders.

Slingerland’s use of Nietzsche and Kant is further complicated in his conclusion, where he proposes that both Nietzche and Kant were right: we should inquire, qua Nietzsche, into the historical (i.e. adaptive) origins of our intuitions about the world while recognizing, qua Kant, that these intuitions are spontaneous products of built-in faculties (p. 402). Here it seems that Slingerland acknowledges the close connection between Kantian faculties and cognitivist mechanisms, but not the irony of this connection for his own argument. Presumably he believes that cognitivist theory avoids tautology (e.g. language acquisition is accomplished by a “language acquisition device”) by its recourse to historical—i.e. adaptive—explanations of the origin of mechanisms. But as many critics of evolutionary psychology have pointed out, without further constraint by neuroscience, developmental and evolutionary biology, and other fields relevant to biological anthropology, these explanations are no more than “just-so stories,” and the charge of explanatory inadequacy remains.

Finally, I would like to comment on the issue of the possible moral consequences of reductionism. Slingerland assures us that the nihilism implied by the view of human nature as “robots all the way down” is avoided because “We Are Robots Designed Not to Believe We Are Robots” (p. 394). One might wonder how Slingerland avoids self-contradiction: how do cognitive scientists believe that we are robots if we are designed to believe otherwise? Slingerland’s answer, as I understand it, is based on the cognivist view that human nature is an aggregate of instincts originally designed for distinct purposes. One unavoidable instinct is to think of ourselves and others as intentional agents. Another unavoidable instinct is to search for underlying causal principles, which in the case of human nature leads eventually to non-intentional mechanisms, or “robots all the way down.” In cognitive scientists these instincts are in conflict, but not so as to cancel each other out. We can—indeed we must—obey both.

Cho and Squier are not comforted by this uneasy truce, and the bulk of their response to Slingerland is devoted to an argument for the real moral consequences of reductive theories of human nature. I must admit that I am not convinced by their evidence; while I do not doubt that some causal connection can be found between reductive theories and bad behavior, the cases that Cho and Squier present are based on conjecture. Moreover, they set a bad precedent for other important debates by implying that we should reject Slingerland’s view of scientific reductionism merely because it is morally abhorrent. Think how poorly other scientific theories—e.g. evolutionary theory—would fair if subjected to prevailing standards of “moral decency.” In short, a better critique of Slingerland’s position must eschew conjecture about its moral consequences and instead focus on standards of coherency, empirical adequacy, and the like. According to such standards, feelings of moral abhorrence are not without relevance. After all, the way in which Slingerland’s theory of human nature jars with our own experience is a sign of its empirical adequacy, though it does not by itself constitute a refutation. Slingerland has a reason for this discordance, but is it adequate?


Atran, Scott. 2002. In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion. New York: Oxford University Press.

Barkow, Jerome, Leda Cosmides, and John Tooby, eds. 1992. The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture. New York: Oxford University Press.

Barrett, Justin. 2004. Why Would Anyone Believe in God? Walnut Creek, Ca: Alta Mira Press.

Boyer, Pascal. 2001. Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. New York: Basic Books.

Cho, Francisca and Richard K. Squier. 2008. “He Blinded Me with Science”: Science Chauvinism in the Study of Religion. The Journal of the American Academy of Religion 76 (2): 420-488. 

Dennett, Daniel. 1991. Consciousness Explained. Boston: Little, Brown, and Co.

Fraser, Chris. 2007. On Wu-wei as a Unifying Metaphor. Philosophy East & West 57 (1): 97-106.

Ivanhoe, Philip J. 2007. The Paradox of Wuwei? Journal of Chinese Philosophy 34 (2): 276-87

Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson. 1999. Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought. New York: Basic Books.

Pinker, Steven. 2002. The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. New York: Viking Press.

_____. 1997. How the Mind Works. New York: Norton.

_____. 1994. The Language Instinct. New York: W. Morrow and Co.

Slingerland, Edward. 2003. Effortless Action: Wu-wei as Conceptual Metaphor and Spiritual Ideal in Early China. New York: Oxford University Press.

­­­_____.  2008a. Who’s Afraid of Reductionism? The Study of Religion in the Age of Cognitive Science. Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 76 (2): 375-411.

­­­_____. 2008b. What Science Offers the Humanities: Integrating Body & Culture. New York: Cambridge University Press.

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